The Korean on "An Economist Gets Lunch"

The Korean is a faithful reader of Prof. Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution. Like Prof. Cowen, the Korean is also a resident of Northern Virginia, and he cares about food deeply. So the Korean is expecting his copy of Prof. Cowen's An Economist Gets Lunch with great interest. The Korean did not read the book yet, but based on the reviews, it sounds fascinating -- Moneyball for lunch selections, as it were. A lot of what Prof. Cowen suggests makes perfect sense. For example, it makes sense to go for the ugly-sounding dish in a nice restaurant, because the dish had better to be good if it deserved a place on the menu. (Oven roasted bone marrow at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington D.C. comes to mind as a good example.)

But the Korean couldn't help but furrow his brow a little bit at the part of the book about selecting good ethnic restaurants. For example, in the New York Times book review that discussed Prof. Cowen's favorite Ethiopian restaurant:
It’s a sports bar, which seems like an unlikely choice, but not to Professor Cowen’s way of thinking. He chose it precisely because it was an unlikely choice. An American sports bar might mean Buffalo wings and cheeseburgers, but an Ethiopian sports bar? “They are making no attempt to appeal to non-Ethiopians,” he said.

How does he know it is good? Ethiopians eat there. It’s crowded. People look prosperous. But the two-page menu offers more clues. A few American items are tucked down in a corner, but other than that it is all Ethiopian. It has Ethiopian breakfast items. The descriptions are sparse, because why would they need explaining to its core audience? There are dishes on the menu that he doesn’t recognize. “That’s always a good sign,” he said.
At a first glance, all of the above seem to make sense. If you want the best Ethiopian food, it makes sense to look for the place that cater more or less exclusively to well-off Ethiopians. However, that idea rests on a critical assumption:  well-off Ethiopians know how to look for the best Ethiopian food. The Korean's problem with this assumption is -- at least when it comes to Korean food in America, that assumption is completely false. I cannot speak for any other ethnic cuisine in America, but I would not be surprised similar trends occurred in other immigrant communities.

Here, the Korean should take a quick detour and remind everyone about his own peculiar stance with food, especially Korean food. Simply put, I am an irrational Korean food purist. I have been called "Korean food Wahhabbist." I despise any and all efforts to steer Korean food away from the way it is supposed to be. (And "the way it is supposed to be" is defined as the way it is made in the place of the dish's origin, i.e. a particular region in Korea. And yes, that means I despise much of Korean food in Korea also.) When I comes to Korean food, I am a deranged lunatic. When it comes to Korean food, I am more unreasonable than an obnoxious sports dad attending his child's little league baseball game. I will utterly disregard the reasonable preference of everyone else. I will lose my shit and wantonly issue death threats to anyone who gives a bad Korean food recipe. So take this post as what you will.

Having said that, how is it the case that well-off Korean Americans still are not competent judges of good Korean food?

Korean Americans have been living in the U.S. in large numbers since the 1960s, and at this point it is fair to say that Korean American cuisine has developed a number of subtle differences that distinguishes it from traditional Korean cuisine. A few of those divergences are positive -- for example, Korean Americans expanded the potential of soondubu soup (spicy soft tofu soup) by adding more, and more diverse, ingredients, to the point that the American-style soondubu soup was reverse-exported back to Korea.

But the Korean would daresay that vast majority of changes applied to Korean cuisine applied by Korean Americans have been negative. One major difference in Korean versus Korean American cuisine is the infantilization of flavors -- going from sophisticated to crude, from complex to one-dimensioned. Much of Korean food in America is one or more of too sweet, too spicy, too salty, etc. Sweetness, in particular, is the all-encompassing evil that completely downgrades Korean food in America. Proper Korean food hardly uses any sweetening agent, but overwhelming majority of Korean restaurants in America liberally use sugar in their food. For anyone with discerning taste, it is vile.

Korean restaurants in America also take many shortcuts to save the cost and effort. Faking umami through the use of MSG in any brothy Korean food is an easy example. Less noticeable (at least to those who never had the real thing) are the "cheap restaurant tricks" that Korean restaurants use in certain types of food. For example, seolleongtang [설렁탕] is a cow's leg bone soup, whose broth becomes milky white after many hours of slowly boiling the bone in low heat as the collagen in the bone slowly melts out. But instead of spending those many hours, Korean restaurants use a shortcut -- take the regular, store-bought beef broth, and add coffee creamer (!) to it.

[-UPDATE, 4/18/2012- Lest there should be any misunderstanding, this is not to say that "cheap restaurant tricks" are used exclusively in Korean restaurants in America. Most of those tricks originated in Korea, and are still used to cheap restaurants in Korea. The difference is that in Korea, the customer base knows enough about Korean food such that "cheap restaurant tricks," for the most part, actually stay within cheap restaurants. In the U.S., that is not the case -- coffee creamer seolleongtang can be found in the places that look like they are supposed to be decent places.]

Then there is the influence of American eating habits creeping into Korean food in America. Vegetables are the backbone of Korean cuisine, as Korea has more than 1,000 edible vegetables and herbs. Korea also has a huge variety of seasonal fish, thanks to the fact that it is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. To keep those vegetables and fish for a long period of time, Koreans have developed a number of pickling and fermentation methods that add a great deal of complexity to those ingredients. (Kimchi is the prime example of this.) In a typical Korean meal, vast majority of the food served will be vegetables or fish, and a lot of them are pickled and/or fermented. But in America, Korean BBQ is the de facto representative of Korean cuisine. Nary a fermented side dish (which invariably takes much more effort to make) can be found. In a disturbing trend, the newer, more "hip" Korean restaurants are doing away with the last vestige of vegetables in Korean BBQ by getting rid of the lettuce wraps that would always accompany the meat.

All told, Korean food to Korean American food is a movie to a pornography -- the entire endeavor is reduced to a single, crass purpose, which is achieved by artificial "enhancements." Yet Korean restaurants, even those only patronized by well-off Korean Americans, merrily stay in business. How?

Ever wished as a child that you could eat your cereal with chocolate milk, or have a piece of cake for breakfast? That's what has happened with Korean food in America. Unmoored from parental supervision (in this case, the centuries of tradition,) Korean Americans have made Korean food in America cheaper, easier and simpler, at the cost of quality. It is particularly notable that most well-off Korean Americans in America did not start out well-off -- they arrived poor, but became middle class through hard work. While Korean Americans' immigrant work ethic deserves lavish praise, it would be ludicrous to claim that those Korean Americans arrived at America with highly sophisticated culinary aesthetics. (Because rare is the case that a group of wealthy people immigrate to America, the Korean would think that similar trend may hold with other ethnic cuisines.)

The presence of young Korean Americans, second generation and beyond, drives this trend to a much deeper nadir. The second generation Korean Americans grew up without ever exploring the ceiling of what Korean food could be, or establishing the floor of what Korean food, at a minimum, should be. Yet, by virtue of their minority status, they become false representatives of authenticity to mainstream America, which is never all that good at appreciating finer differences within a given ethnic group. Even David Chang, probably the most famous Korean American chef in the U.S. right now, apparently "had no idea there were such endless varieties of namul," or seasoned vegetable dishes, in Korean cuisine. To me, that is an inexcusable level of ignorance -- namul is (or, at least, should be) on a Korean table every meal, every day. If you do not even know the characteristics of one of the most foundational components of Korean food, what the hell do you know?

This means that even following Prof. Cowen's advice does not necessarily lead to good Korean food. In Manhattan, for example, one could always find a restaurant around 32nd street that makes no attempt to cater to non-Koreans; that is crowded with prosperous-looking Koreans; whose menu is exclusively comprised of Korean food items with little English description accompanying them. Yet, no matter -- that restaurant will serve shitty Korean food laced with so much MSG that, if you have sensitive stomach like my wife, it will give you the runs all day long.

By my count, the New York metro area (Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey) only has three or four good Korean restaurants. (Please note that this is "good" in the scale of "great-good-tolerable-inedible.") Northern Virginia has one that could be considered good.

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